CAN HE PULL UP THE RED SOX? : Smith Still Searching for Respect in Baseball

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Times Staff Writer

In his eighth season with the Chicago Cubs, having produced an unmatched record of relief, Lee Smith decided he was entitled to some of his own.

Relief from what he perceived to be media and fan abuse, a lack of respect and appreciation, the sense of having been too long in one place.

Insisting that they were trying to strengthen their rotation and not simply responding to Smith’s desire to be traded, the Cubs dealt their relief ace to the Boston Red Sox for pitchers Calvin Schiraldi and Al Nipper.


It happened at the December baseball meetings and prompted Smith to say that he would send Cub General Manager Jim Frey a Christmas gift in repayment.

“The man did a right good job,” Smith said at the time, his enthusiasm having done nothing but grow since then.

Smith sat near the Red Sox clubhouse before a recent workout and said:

“I went to a Boston Celtic game at the (Boston) Garden after the trade and got a standing ovation. I mean, I haven’t thrown one pitch for the Red Sox yet and I’ve gotten more respect than I ever did in Chicago.”

Was that respect Smith experienced in the Garden, or an expression of the expectations that are rampant among the Red Sox and throughout New England?

Smith is seen as the modern day Paul Revere, or Dick Radatz, perhaps, rushing to the rescue of a bullpen that had a major league-low 16 saves last year and a major league-high 5.45 earned-run average, a bullpen that consistently failed with the game on the line, contributing to a 3-12 record in extra innings.

The 30-year-old Smith, meanwhile, was saving a career-high 36 games, joining Dan Quisenberry of the Kansas City Royals as the only relief pitchers ever to have registered 30 or more saves in 4 straight seasons.


His intimidating form and fastball now represent a missing element for the Red Sox, who introduced some of the American League’s most impressive young players in a midseason response to their slide from Eastern Division champion to 78-84 and fifth place.

Smith was at his home in Castor, La., celebrating news of his acquisition by the Red Sox and deciding what to get Frey for Christmas, when second baseman Marty Barrett told reporters that having a proven closer means a division title for the team.

The Red Sox are being more cautious now, though General Manager Lou Gorman smiled and said: “We’re excited because we feel we’ve solved our bullpen problem. Last year, we held our breath every time we went to the pen.

“We blew a lead in the eighth or ninth inning 20 times. Here’s a guy who saved 36 games. If we’d had 20 of them, we’d have tied Detroit for the most wins in the major leagues (98).

“A Lee Smith figures to have a dramatic impact. He’ll change the whole atmosphere. There’s nothing as demoralizing as losing in the late innings.”

Of the great expectations, Smith said: “Every time I go into a game, it’s on the line. Every time I go into a game, there’s pressure. It’s nothing new to me.”


Boston’s manager, John McNamara, is under some pressure himself. Lee Smith could be a saver in more ways than one. McNamara cited his rotation of Roger Clemens, Bruce Hurst, Dennis (Oil Can) Boyd, Jeff Sellers and a fifth starter to be determined and said:

“We’ve filled an essential role, but only if we can get to him, that’s the key. If we can, it’ll be a new experience, having a closer of his talent. A guy like Lee Smith becomes available, and you wonder if he’s hurt, but I went to three National League managers and they all begged me to get him out of the league.”

Said Gorman: “We heard all kinds of things. We heard he had bad knees, a bad back, a bad arm. He’s had a little problem with his knees, but he took the ball 62 times last year, he’s had 180 saves in his career and we ran him through every possible stress test after the trade and he passed them all.”

Said Smith: “I’ve heard so much about my knees that I thought they’d be carrying me here in a body bag.”

Smith stands 6 feet 6 inches and weighs 250 pounds--according to the Red Sox media guide. His contract allows him to be fined a maximum of $35,000 for failing to maintain a weight agreed to by the club and player, but he has not had to be fined by the Red Sox, Gorman said.

Smith said he has been controlling his weight by eating chicken four times a week, following a diet recommended by teammate Wade Boggs in his book, “Fowl Tips.”


Nevertheless, the weight would seem to be an obvious burden on his knees, though of more significance, Smith believes, is the fact that he experienced most of that growth in his early teens and paid a price through the destruction of his knee cartilage, preventing a pursuit of his first love, basketball.

He was all-Louisiana in both sports, playing on knees that were nothing more than “bone on bone,” he said.

“I grew up following Walt Frazier and Earl (the Pearl) Monroe,” he said. “I loved basketball. I loved watching the way they handled the ball and hung in the air.

“When I was in college (Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, La.,) we’d go down to watch Pete Maravich with the New Orleans Jazz. I remember that every time they’d score 110 points, it was free french fries at McDonald’s. The ball went out to Pistol Pete at the top of the key, and nobody even watched because they knew he’d hit it. They just started lining up behind me. It’s hard thinking about that man being dead.”

Lee Arthur Smith was the fourth of six children, the youngest until his mother had twin girls 12 years after he was born. He was born in his mother’s house in Jamestown, La., not far from Castor.

His father was a hog farmer, and Smith remembered getting up at 6 each morning to help with the chores before catching the school bus.


Now Smith has a wife--the same girl he used to chase off the basketball court 15 years ago--a year-old daughter and an $850,000 salary, but he returns each winter to help his father haul wood, fish in the nearby lakes and tinker with his nine cars, a hobby that began when his father bought him a ’57 Chevy for $50 and Smith remodeled it in shop class. He was 14.

Now, too, Smith has added four garages, two wings and a swimming pool to the house he bought for his family near his parents’ house in Castor. He can go home again, but it seems a long way from the segregated schools of his youth and an early aversion to baseball.

Smith said he began playing only because his brother bet him $10 that he couldn’t handle the position of catcher. He said he would have preferred to be fishing at Keeler Lake than striking out those 124 batters in 53 innings as a high school senior. The scouts marveled at all that heat, but Smith didn’t.

In fact, his high school baseball coach once said: “You know how guys jump off the mound when they’ve thrown a no-hitter? Well Lee threw several of them and always just walked off as if that was the way it was supposed to be. Nothing about baseball got him excited.”

It was no different in college. Smith said he played baseball only because the coach said he would not be allowed to play basketball if he didn’t. He was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in 1975 and claims he said: “What’s a Chicago Cub?”

“I had no interest in baseball, didn’t really care about it,” he said. “If the Yankees and Dodgers weren’t in the World Series, I didn’t know who was playing. I didn’t know what teams were in the National League or what teams were in the American League. I was just never that involved in baseball.”


The Cubs offered enough of a bonus to whet his interest, but even as a minor leaguer, he said, he considered quitting to return to college basketball or to accept a tryout offer from the Jazz.

“My knees were always the obstacle,” he said. “Baseball was simply the easier way. I didn’t really have much choice. I only got serious about it in my first year with the Cubs (1980).”

Smith had arthroscopic surgery on his left knee in 1983, his only operation. There are times, he said, when his knees and back stiffen, but only after pitching two or three days in a row or running a lot on synthetic surfaces, of which the American League has only four.

“I can still throw four or five times a week, depending on the number of innings,” he said. “I can still throw 93 to 96 m.p.h. I still have plenty of pop.”

Said Frey, the Cubs’ general manager: “Lee took the ball for us just about every time he was asked. If a guy is saving 30 to 36 games a year, I don’t think you can dwell on his physical problems.”

What Frey said he dwelt on was a rotation that included veteran Rick Sutcliffe and the inexperienced Jamie Moyer, Les Lancaster and Greg Maddux.


Both Schiraldi, who was used in relief by the Red Sox, and Nipper, who filled a variety of roles, will be given chances to start by the Cubs. Frey said it was the best he was offered and felt he had to accept it.

“Lee Smith saved 36 games, but the club won only 76 games, the reason being that the rotation wasn’t good enough,” he said.

“I felt we needed numbers in the rotation rather than protection in the bullpen. We have some young pitchers in our system that have a chance to develop into outstanding relief pitchers, and I made the trade knowing we had a chance to get (Goose) Gossage to help us over this period.”

Gossage, 36, subsequently came from the San Diego Padres in trade for Keith Moreland.

“I’m not going to tell you that Goose is the same pitcher Billy Martin used to bring in, but if our rotation is better, maybe he doesn’t have to be,” Frey said.

“Anytime you trade a pitcher of Lee Smith’s caliber, there’s going to be criticism, but there’s a gamble to every trade. I’ve received a lot of response for and against. Only time will tell.”

Time was the complicating aspect in the Smith case. He is in the last year of his contract and can become a free agent when the season ends. The Red Sox, Gorman said, are confident they can re-sign him. Frey said he doubted that the Cubs could have.


“His agent called me to say that Lee felt abused by the press and fans in Chicago and wasn’t comfortable with the situation. He said that if something could be worked out in the way of a trade, he’d welcome it.

“I didn’t feel I had to trade him because of that, but here you have a player in the last year of his contract expressing a desire to leave. If I don’t trade him now, then I have to ask myself what the compensation will be if he leaves as a free agent. The answer, of course, is an amateur draft choice, if that.”

Lee Smith said he couldn’t be happier, that it was time to move on, that he wasn’t driven out by the media or fans but that there was a general lack of respect, particularly on call-in shows and in the Cubs’ radio-TV booth.

He acknowledged that he wasn’t the first or won’t be the last player criticized by broadcaster Harry Caray, but that he tired of it, as he tired of the perception that Rick Sutcliffe was the only pitcher on the Cubs’ staff.

“People there said that if I had saved a couple more games, Sutcliffe might have won the Cy Young,” Smith said.

Much of what Smith experienced is inherent in the relief pitcher’s make-or-break world. Save 10 games in a row, lose 1 on a blooper and everyone asks, “What have you done for us lately?”


Some, in fact, may never have forgiven him for yielding the home run to Steve Garvey in Game 4 of the 1984 playoff with the Padres. In another time and place, the reaction came to be known as the curse of Tom Niedenfuer.

Said agent Brian David: “Lee accepted it all very well or he wouldn’t have been as successful as he was.”

Nevertheless, Smith began to yearn for a fresh start. The friendly confines of Wrigley Field? A misnomer, he thought.

“I put my heart on the line every time I went out there, but it was as if I got respect everywhere except Chicago,” he said. “They asked a trivia question as to what pitcher had saved 30 games 4 years in a row, and some of the guys in the Cub bullpen didn’t even know the answer.”

Smith knows that it will be no easier in Boston, that “if I screw up, they won’t let me forget it there, either. But if I get 36 saves again, I can put my head on the pillow believing I’ve done a good job. I’m looking to satisfy the club and myself.”

The Red Sox, of course, shouldn’t be blamed for looking ahead.

Said Bruce Hurst: “A guy like Lee Smith makes everyone better. He helps define the roles. Last year we kept searching, trying a lot of guys in that role. Now we know we’ve got a guy who can shut the door.”


Said Roger Clemens: “I’ve still got to prepare myself to go nine, but the difference is that when I can’t, when I have to come out, there won’t be that previous reluctance to turn it over.”

Relief can mean different things to different people. For Lee Smith, who is usually in at the finish, it means a new start.